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Digital TV should bring freedom but viewers still boxed in

Over 30 years ago, I thought my family in Khon Kaen was among the first in Thailand to get a TV set. It was black and white, of course, but we kids had no problem imagining the colours of what we saw on screen.

Nor was there any problem choosing what to watch. Only two channels were available - Channel 7 and the local station, Channel 5.

Not much had changed by the time we got a colour set, only that we no longer had to use our imagination. Watching "Sang Khiew", a very scary movie at the time featuring a plant spirit, we knew when the ghost would appear thanks to its glowing green colour.

A few years later, things got more complicated. Channel 3's signal reached our province, leaving us scratching our heads over what to watch.

Fast forward a few decades and the viewing options have exploded. Our six free TV channels are being multiplied to 36 this month as Thai TV enters the digital age. If you can afford it, you already have the 100-plus channels offered by cable or satellite.

But the switch from analog to digital will offer 20 million households plenty more to scratch their heads over. Operators, meanwhile, have the headache of how to number the new channels. The numbers game could also mean confusion for viewers.

The new digital system will bring 24 more channels to our screens. The auction for seven channels in the high-definition (HD) category was topped by BEC Group's bid of Bt3.53 billion, which supposedly gave it first choice of channel number. Alas, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) had different ideas.

For years, satellite TV has been the choice of many viewers. Some operators charge just Bt200 per month for over 100 channels, including the free TV channels. Many pay up just to get a better signal for free TV, happy to ignore the foreign-language channels - mostly from China and India.

Under pressure from free online downloads, several music companies - chiefly GMM Grammy and RS - have made money through programmes for satellite TV. To gain viewers, they have fought to get their channel numbers in the first 10 slots.

Yet, thanks to the NBTC announcement, the first 10 slots can be allocated freely by the service operators. And this rule won't change under the new digital era. As such, BEC Group's HD station will not be Channel 1 on all broadcasting platforms. Whether that affects its rating and, consequently, its advertising revenue remains to be seen.

It will also give viewers a headache. Through PSI, the satellite TV service that reaches over half our 20 million households, numbering for the free channels starts from 300. TrueVisions, meanwhile, is yet to change its numbering to welcome the free digital channels, but when it does, subscribers face the repeat chore of memorising the new slots of their favourite channels.

Expect plenty of confusion, with neighbours talking about the same TV programme but referring to it by different channel numbers according to the satellite service they use.

The NBTC is trying to sort out the mess and ensure that channel numbering is uniform across all platforms. Whether that happens is anyone's guess. If not, viewers will be spending more time zapping through channels in search of their favourite shows.

Along with the numbering mess, there's another thing the NBTC needs to take into consideration.

Viewers nowadays are now faced with a dilemma over set-top boxes.

RS recently won a court battle to sell its new set-top box, which gives access to every match from this summer's soccer World Cup. Football fans who are also hooked on RS entertainment shows will need both the World Cup box and the Sunbox. And those addicted to HBO series, now exclusively broadcast by TrueVisions, will need a third box.

Critics point out that if this pattern continues, viewers could soon need an extra box for each major sporting or entertainment event. That would be a nightmare, particularly at a time when the world is trying hard to conserve precious resources and minimise waste.

I agree with those who say the NBTC should aim for a single box that can receive all signals. We already have the technology to encode certain channels, which can be unlocked for paying subscribers. Digital technology should allow us to revisit that time over 30 years ago when we didn't need a stack of set-top boxes.

The era of digital TV has expanded our viewing options, but that benefit should not come at a cost to any party - households or the environment.


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